Rock ‘n’ roll and blues piano great Johnnie Johnson — Chuck Berry’s creative partner, melodic and rhythmic foil, and the man for whom “Johnny B. Goode” was named — has died at his St. Louis home at 80.
Johnson, age 4, took immediately to the new piano his parents brought into their Fairmont, West Virginia, home. By 9 he was playing jazz tunes by Count Basie, Oscar Peterson and Earl “Fatha” Hines on a local radio station. While serving in the Marines, Johnson performed in the Special Service Band, and, moving to Chicago after the war, he apprenticed with such blues masters as Muddy Waters and Albert King. By the early-’50s he was living in St. Louis, where he worked in a factory by day and fronted the Johnnie Johnson Trio, an R&B band, by night. When he had to replace an ailing saxophonist for a club date on New Year’s Eve 1952, he hired a guitarist named Chuck Berry to fill in.
Berry’s chunky riffing style alloyed perfectly with Johnson’s blues and boogie woogie. Many of Chuck Berry’s classics — including “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “School Days,” “No Particular Place to Go” and “Roll Over Beethoven” — were created when Berry showed up for rehearsal with lyrics and asked Johnson to flesh out the music. “Just me, Chuck and the piano,” Johnson has said. Johnson and Berry traveled to Chicago in 1957, where they recorded “Maybellene” for Chess, the first of many Chuck Berry hits that featured Johnson on rollicking piano.
After more than 20 years together, Johnson and Berry parted ways in ’73, and Johnson performed with Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, the Kentucky Headhunters, Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead, Susan Tedeschi, NRBQ, Buddy Guy and Styx. Diverse!
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 in the “sidemen” category, perhaps the greatest “sideman” of them all.
Johnson sued Berry in 2000 for back royalties on 52 of Berry’s songs from 1955 to 1966, which Berry copyrighted under his own name only. But in an opinion issued in 2002, a federal judge determined that under the federal Copyright Act, Johnson was not entitled to anything because he had simply waited too long to pursue his case against Berry.
His last performance was with fellow Rock ‘n’ Roll originator, Bo Diddley on February 9, 2005. “It was so much fun to play with Johnnie,” Diddley said upon hearing the news. “The world has lost a great man and a great musician. He will be missed but his music will live on.”
Johnson is survived by his wife, Frances, 10 children and many grandkids. A memorial service will be held at a time and place to be announced.
Chuck Berry talked with AP about Johnson’s death:
- Late Wednesday, [Berry] went directly to Blueberry Hill nightclub in this St. Louis suburb, where Berry and Johnson had played together as recently as a year ago, to remember “the man with a dynamite right hand” with whom he shared a half-century of music and memories.
A master of boogie-woogie, Johnson was “my piano player who no one else has come near,” said Berry, 78, still spry and dapper in a royal blue shirt, a silver bolo tie, pleated charcoal slacks and mariner’s cap
…”He gave me a break” and his first commercial gig, for $4, Berry recalled. “I was excited. My best turned into a mess. I stole the group from Johnny.”
Johnson never held it against him.
“Midway through the show, Chuck did a hillbilly country number with a bluesy vein, and it knocked people out,” said Blueberry Hill club owner Joe Edwards, a friend of both men.
…Berry said he would perform a tribute concert in Johnson’s honor, ideally at downtown St. Louis’s roughly 70,000-seat Edward Jones Dome.
“We’ll fill that sucker,” he said.